Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Book 69-Hunger (105th Book)

The book of the month for September was Hunger by Knut Hamsun....never mind that it is now October! I read through this novel in less than a week and I am hopeful that means I will catch up in the following months. My slacking off in the month of August has really set me back! Hunger was an easy read and one that I was thoroughly fascinated by. It is written by a Norwegian author, but has a lot of similarities to Russian novels, namely in its treatment of the poor instead of the wealthy.

Hunger reminded me a great deal of Crime and Punishment, Malone Dies and also Kafka's novels. The further down the list I get the more I realize that having these classics under my belt will allow me to make comparisons between authors and novels. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

This novel follows a nameless narrator who is slowly starving to death as he fumbles around trying to make a living. The story follows him as he tries to raise money through various means, as his hair falls out due to malnourishment and also as his mind gives way to fantastical ramblings. This is one of the clearest and easiest to follow examples of stream of consciousness literature that I have read to date. I am not always a fan of stream of consciousness literature, but this one does the job well.

I have always been a fan of literature that focuses on the poor and this novel didn't disappointment me. It really shows the struggles that the poor and homeless face in a realistic and terrifying manner. It is HARD work trying to find a way to feed yourself everyday when you don't have a roof over your head and every action is harder when compounded by hunger. Rather than focus on just the day to day suffering of the narrator we also see some of his psychological troubles as well. Like many, when faced with hard trials he believes that God is against him. "Was the hand of the Lord turned against me?" He also wonders what makes him different from everyone else and why all this trouble has to happen to him specifically. "Was I not just as much entitled to live as anyone else?" I think these are common thoughts that people ask themselves when facing difficult challenges.

The novel also has a feeling of poetry to it. There are several descriptions of surroundings that are quite beautiful. "It is the reign of Autumn, the height of the Carnival of Decay." The narrator has heightened senses due to his hunger and pays attention to everything including the minute details.

I had never heard of these novel before, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. It may just be one of the few novels that I would rate highly at the tail end of this list. The further down I go the grumpier I get. I was happy to find this gem which I was quite pleased with. I have no idea what to expect from the next novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz but I will pick it up from the library this weekend since it is still quite pricey as an ebook and I don't know what I will think of it.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book 68- The USA Trilogy (104th book)

The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos was the 68th book on the list and it took me two and a half months to finish. This makes this the book that has taken me the most time to complete in the challenge so far. Technically, this trilogy is actually THREE novels, but since they are inherently tied together I can forgive Daniel S. Burt for only making them one novel on the list. Although this is the book of the month for August I am just now finishing the books and the review in October.

I am not sure why I struggled with these novels since I actually quite liked the novels every time I read them. Perhaps my main struggle with them was that I read them in the dog days of summer and I really wanted to be doing light summer reading. (I was also reading a book about 19th century magicians at the same time which seemed infinitely more interesting than this massive overview of American culture!) It might have also had something to do with the fact that the novel is partially set doing the First World War and the period following, which, if you follow my blog you will know that I hate.

This novel has a truly interesting structure which can be hard to follow. Thankfully I had read up on the USA trilogy in the Novel 100 so I learned about the structures and found them interesting.

  • There are several characters the novel follows who are average everyday citizens. Their life is hard and the characters are realistic in how they handle their trials
  • There are several biographies of famous people as well. In contrast, these are heroic and often have repetitive phrases throughout them to emphasis the one one point the person is known for
  • There is a section called the Camera Eye which is a stream of consciousness account of John Dos Passos life
  • There is also a section called the Newsreel which involves headlines from several major newspapers around the time that the novel is set. Some of these show realistic snapshots of events that affect the novel's characters, other simply help to give a picture of the times.
I think the thing that stands out for me about this novel is that the characters are very real to life. They seem very authentic and as a result are very likeable. They are all represented as fallible and seem to struggle with life while having moments of joy. I think if this novel had attempted to cover the same period in a different way that the book would have been rather dry. There are some characters I liked better than other and their are some of the books that I liked better than others. I liked The Big Money and The 42nd Parallel far better than 1919 for instance.

The other thing I liked about this novel was that it brought me into contact with a great Vancouver used bookstore called MacLeods. The ugly novel cover featured in this review was the covers of 2 of the 3 books that I picked up for this challenge. I had always heard about this institution but had taken to mostly visiting the cute counterpart across the street called The Paperhound. This bookstore is a maze of novels stacked as far as the eye can see although there is some semblance of order it helps to find things if you have help from the store owners. They were knowledge about all books and gave me an overview of what I was getting myself into.  Since this is a trilogy I would have had to purchase three separate books and even at Kobo digital prices they would have been $13 each. Thankfully, I was able to find 2 of the 3 novels used for $5 a piece. The first novel I had to buy on Kobo.

The next thing I liked about this book was that even though the novel was told from several  completely different characters points of view at times the characters lives intersected. You would see some characters from their own perspective and then also read about them from another's perspective when they interacted with someone else. This was very cool concept and reminded me a little bit of Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. I was also reminded of this novel since the USA Trilogy also covered the "wobblies" or union men from the same period as Against the Day.

For the next novel I get back to the roots of why I started this challenge in the first place, reading free books on my Kobo. The next novel is Hunger by Knut Hamsun and I already have it loaded on my Kobo and ready to go. Perhaps I can get myself back on track and make up for lost time!

Book 67- Call It Sleep (103 book)

Book 67 was Call it Sleep by Henry Roth. It was the book of the month for July, but I somehow missed doing a review and now the finer point of the novel seem to have escaped me. I liked this book, that much I remember. The story follows David Schearl a young Jewish immigrant as he grows up in a new and terrifying world. It is coming of age story that rang very true for me.

David reminds me a lot of myself at that age because he finds the world a frightening place. A classic example of my early fear was the fact that my mother had to sneak out of my Preschool class when I wasn't looking after 3 days of accompanying me. I also, apparently, taught myself to read because when ever we had guests arrive at the house I would run upstairs and hide. I was always found reading books after the guest left.

David is a mamma's boy with a father who is a tyrant. He constantly lives in fear of upsetting his father and causing a huge row in his house. This shapes part of who he becomes later in the novel since he is timid and fluctuates between the fear of his peers and the fear of his father. These two opposing worries shape a lot of his encounters throughout the rest of the novel and ultimately shape his destiny.

David is also Jewish and his mother decides to send him to a Hebrew school to further his religious education despite the fact that the family isn't really devote. It is at Hebrew school where David learns the story of Isaiah and the coal being pressed to his lips to purify him. David instantly falls in love with this story and becomes obsessed with trying to have an encounter with God. One day on his ramblings throughout the city he stumbles upon a group of boys who show him the power of electricity in the live trolley lines. David somehow equates this experience with the story of Isaiah and believes that he has seen God.

Later in the story he meet a Catholic boy who lives in the neighbourhood. He discovers a rosary and becomes obsessed with having it at all costs. This obsession is used as a bribe by the neighbour boy to convince David to introduce him to his female cousins. David lives in constant fear of male/female relations after an encounter he had with a girl when he was younger and also after hearing about his mother affair with a non Jewish man before she met his father. David is constantly racked with guilt and his religious interest in partially based on him wanting to be good and feel clean.

The neighbour boy gives David the rosary and meets David's cousins only to assault one of them who then tells on him. David in a fit of panic runs to the Rabbi who is teaching him Hebrew. In order to cover up why he snuck into the school David tells the Rabbi an elaborate lie about his parentage based partially on the story he hears about his mother's encounter with the non Jewish man. The story culminates in a dramatic encounter where the Rabbi, the aunt and her new husband all converge on the Schearl house at the same time.

In owning up to the crime that happened the rosary falls out of his pocket and the father flies into a rage believing that it has all been an elaborate plot against him since the beginning. David runs out of the house and heads down to the trolley rails wanting to have another encounter with God. He jams a piece of metal into the tracks and is electrocuted. As he lies there with people trying to help him the title of the novel becomes clear as he utter the final line of the book that "he might as well call it sleep".

Normally, I don't retell plots when writing a review, but as I set out to write this review I needed to refresh the story in my own mind. The pieces of the story that stuck out the most for me are so tied in with the events that happen to David it is hard to share the details without sharing the plot. I think the most defining feature of this book for me was finding my childhood self mirrored in the  main character. This story portrayed both my fear of the world which lasted well into my teen years and also my dedication and devotion to God which developed as a direct result of myself trying to make sense of a world I found terrifying and confusing.

Although my fear and need to cling to God eventually lessened, my faith and belief in a very personal God never disappeared. I think this is what drew me to David's character the most. While all his fellow Hebrew schoolmates saw their religious education as a chore David found meaning and hope in it. The story of Isaiah stuck with him when he heard it told to an older student. He was also struck by the story of Christian faith as told by his Catholic neighbour. These things endeared David to me.

I like that this quest of reading the 100 greatest novels has lead to me hearing about different life experiences. Henry Roth is Jewish and wrote this story as Jewish immigrant and it reflects parts of life I will probably never have to experience. It is still great to be able to read it and find a deeper human meaning behind someone who had a vastly different experience of the world. Great literature is literature that makes us think and also literature that unites us together in the human experience. I would recommend this novel to anyone.